Musicians on the moments that changed them: Andrew Litton meets Oscar Peterson

Living on the edge: For conductor Andrew Litton, discovering Oscar Peterson’s phenomenal playing sent him on a search for musical freedom

I knew nothing about jazz until my 16th birthday party. One of my friends brought over an Oscar Peterson LP called Tracks. When everybody left I put it on, and I just couldn’t believe what I heard. The first cut was Give me the Simple Life. I’d never heard rhythm like that.

There’s one extended development part where unless you’re clicking the backbeats you actually think he’s completely off—but if you do keep clicking the backbeats, you suddenly realize that he doesn’t lose it for one millisecond! It just completely flipped me out. If one can look back at tge epiphanal moments of one’s life, this was certainly one of them. It just began an obsession with Oscar. In 2004 I was able to bring Oscar Peterson to the Minnesota Festival, Sommerfest; this was great. After having seen him perform and after 21 years of going backsrage and being a groupie, I was suddenly able to present him.

What upset me the most when he died was how few people actually understood what made him such a genius. A lot of critics in jazz and pop music kept harping on about the fingers, the technique, and how the technique got in the way of expressiveness—I can’t believe that people can say that.

Where did his genius lie? First of all in his pianism. He could do things on the piano that so few pianists can, in any medium. Vladimir Horowitz comes to mind as somebody who also understood a piano like Peterson. For example, it’s the bane of every pianist’s existence to make a smooth, legato line, because we’re playing a percussion instrument, and one of the tricks is to use the sustaining pedal. I sat in one of his concerts in the mid-’80s by his pedal foot, in the first row—it was the only seat left. And I could not believe the feathering of the pedal that he was doing. The right foot on the sustaining pedal was moving almost as fast as his fingers. It was just an extraordinary thing to watch.

But the bottom line, and people missed this point, is that he was the ultimate hybrid. He was a phenomenal jazz artist, but he played the piano with the kind of ability that most of us classical players spend our lifetimes trying to achieve.

It completely affected my music-making in the sense that I wanted to be able to have the kind of freedoms that he exhibited. I think it gave my playing, and hopefully my conducting, a greater sense of freedom. I certainly felt like I learned a lot from listening to the natural ability of people who don’t plan their every move, but actually just do it.

As a young piano student and wannabe conductor, you spend so much of your time worrying about how perfect you can make something, and you’re not worrying about the big picture, which is “am I saying something with this music?”. Oscar helped me realizs that’s the most important thing.

Andrew Litton conducts the Bergen Philharmonic on a UK tour: Gateshead (March 22/23), Derby (24), and Cadogan Hall, London (25.)

Originally printed in the March 2010 issue of Gramophone.
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